The Cowboys will take little time in enjoying their victory over Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL Super Wild Card round 31-14 on Monday night. While the franchise can finally point the "haven't won a road playoff game in 30 years" behind them, now comes the NFC Divisional Round against a team they know all too well.
Enter the San Francisco 49ers, the same team that bounced the Cowboys out of the playoffs last season at home. But these are not the 49ers of last season. At 13-4 and a first-place finish in the regular season, the 49ers have been led by perhaps the best defense in the NFL this season, a bevy of offensive firepower - and the unlikeliest of heroes.
A rivalry restored? Here are the five storylines for Cowboys and 49ers before kickoff at Levi Stadium from Santa Clara this Sunday.
- For all of the criticism Dak Prescott faced leading Monday night's game against the Buccaneers, he more than answered the call. Prescott was 25-33 for 305 yards with four touchdowns along with another rushing score, setting or surpassing multiple franchise playoff records in the process. In last season's Wild Card matchup with the 49ers, Prescott was 23-43 with 254 yards passing with a rushing touchdown and a pick.
- The Cowboys finally had perhaps their healthiest collection of offensive linemen to start out with against the Buccaneers… But it only lasted for so long. After welcoming back Tyler Biadasz at center, the Cowboys went with Jason Peters at left tackle and thus moving rookie Tyler Smith back to left guard. Peters eventually left the game not to return with a knee injury, while safety Jayron Kearse, who had a pick, sustained a knee injury late. Kearse said postgame he should be good to go against the 49ers, while Peters' status remains undetermined, thus forcing Connor McGovern back to left guard and Smith back to tackle, continuing the offensive line carousel.
- Two of the biggest issues that have plagued the Cowboys in recent playoff memory stems around penalties, and to close out the regular season, turnovers. But on Monday night, the Cowboys committed just two penalties for 15 yards and zero turnovers (yes, that includes no picks from Prescott.) With a San Francisco defense that led the league in interceptions this season, keeping Monday night's trend going will be paramount for Dallas.
- But while the penalties were cut down, the biggest problem Monday night once again occurred on special teams, where Brett Maher missed four extra points before finally making one in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys "have a plan" for Maher this week in practice and for now, it doesn't appear as if they will change the personnel or even add a kicker before next week's game with the 49ers.
- The Cowboys' defense will have their work cut out for them come Sunday against the vaunted 49ers' offensive firepower. San Francisco and head coach Kyle Shanahan are known for their affinity in running the football. The Cowboys' run defense has been the soft spot of their overall attack, ranking in the bottom third of the league in rushing yards per game in the regular season.
- For a moment, the Seattle Seahawks appeared to have the 49ers on the ropes in their Wild Card contest. That quickly faded however, as San Francisco pulled away in the second half to take the 41-23 victory. Midseason edition Christian McCaffery proved his worth, rushing for 119 yards to go with a touchdown reception as well. Deebo Samuel was magnificent from the receiver spot with 133 yards and a score on six catches. As for the defense, they racked up three sacks and a pick.
- If you haven't met 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, now would be the time to acquaint yourself. In nine games this season, the Iowa State product has passed for almost 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns with four picks after being the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft and supplanting both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo due to injury. Against the Seahawks, Purdy torched their defense for 332 yards and four total touchdowns, no picks, and a sack.
- Here is the biggest number you need to know as it pertains to the 49ers' defense - 77.7. That is the average total of rushing yards per game San Francisco has allowed this season, good for second in the league this season behind the Titans (whom the Cowboys struggled to run the ball against albeit without Tony Pollard.) On the flip side, the 49ers pass defense has struggled due to a massive number of injuries in the secondary, surrendering 223 yards per game through the air.
- There are plenty of talented and imposing figures along the 49ers' defensive attack, but none more so than Nick Bosa. A favorite for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Bosa paced the league with 18.5 sacks this season to go with his 51 tackles and two forced fumbles. Along with the rest of the San Francisco pass rush, they were able to get to Prescott five times in last season's playoff game and will be a true test for a Dallas offensive line that has been in constant flux this season.
- Much like what Dalton Schultz is to Dak Prescott, George Kittle will be a factor for Purdy and the 49ers' offense. The tight end racked up 765 receiving yards on 60 catches with 11 scores during the regular season, while wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk posted a 1,000-yard season with eight touchdowns as a major factor in the yards-after-catch department.